Monday, March 30, 2009

Disasters in Perspective

Somehow, in trying to transfer files from my Dell computer to my new Mac laptop, I managed to lose my entire blog file. Over two years worth of blogs, including the one I had prepared for today and my backlog of future blogs. A total disaster, I thought.

And there flashed into my mind an incident many years ago aboard the U.S.S. Ticonderoga which, once again, reminded me of the importance of perspective as to the difference between a minor inconvenience and a true disaster. So, for lack of a regular blog for today, I post here an entry from my “A World Ago” blog (

21 November 1955
Several entries in this journal have begun “Nothing new today,” or words to that effect—I would rather have every day like that than one like tonight!

The movie on the mess deck was “Houdini”—the story of the great magician. I was sitting crouched on my chair, the better to see over the heads of the guys in front of me. About two hundred other guys were seated on benches, chairs, or the hard steel deck, or standing in the back. The movie was approaching its climax when suddenly the squawk box blared: “Man Overboard—Port Side!” The ship swung so sharply & suddenly to starboard that benches & chairs toppled & everyone was forced to the side of the hall. The lights came on almost immediately, & everyone began filing from the room, with much confusion. I saw one of the cooks & asked where we were to go—he said we had to muster on the hanger deck; that is the only way they could tell who it was who had gone over.

The scene on the hanger deck was one of mass confusion. Many planes were parked about, & guys were running every which way, getting to their stations. A jet was on the number two elevator, evidently just being lowered—I noticed it was a very dark night—the kind of blackness found only on the ocean. An officer came running across the hanger deck, yelling for guys to push the jet off the elevator & onto the hanger deck.

Since only cooks muster on the hanger deck & mess cooks muster on the mess decks, I went below. A few moments later Nick came down, looking very pale. I asked him what was wrong. He said “You can’t walk on the flight deck without slipping.”

A jet, coming in for a landing, had missed all the barriers & smashed into a group of guys preparing to launch planes—no one knew how many were dead, or how many had been thrown over the side. The bodies were scattered all over the flight deck, all dismembered. They’d started bringing them down on the elevator just after I’d left.

No one knows yet how many are gone—we’re missing two mess cooks (guys sometimes go up to the flight deck to watch operations). Six bodies were brought down, with God knows how many injured.

Sick Bay has been calling for blood donors; there is blood in the passageways leading to Sick Bay. As I am writing this, a call came to the Commissary Office to open the Garbage Disposal room so that the stretchers can be washed. The Reefers (Refrigeration Rooms ) have been opened to receive the bodies.

As the muster was called, I looked at the faces around me—all silent, some very pale; a few smoked cigarettes, others looked around as each name was called, wondering who would not answer. Something I will not soon forget.

Rumors & scuttlebutt will sweep the ship for days, but we will never be told how many went over the side, or how many more died. It may be in the stateside papers, but I doubt it.

And just a few moments ago, the squawk box announced, as it has hundreds of times during flight operations: “The smoking lamp is out while fueling aircraft.”

The doctor was just in, asking for keys to the Reefers again—“We found some more gear belonging to one of them—we don’t know which one.” A destroyer just came alongside with the pilot of the plane—other destroyers are busy searching for others. Let’s hope they are all found.

I could go on, but somehow I just don’t feel like it….

Another call just came for O-blood; at least thirty guys are standing in line, from seamen to Commanders. People can be marvelous beings

There will be a new blog posted this Wednesday, and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday thereafter. I’ll try not to lose my files again.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Change and "Never!"

The past and the future are like the earth’s tectonic plates, grinding against one another with infinite slowness. Their resulting motion is change.

Humans resist change, probably as a safety measure to prevent us from being like a runaway train. But the overwhelming chorus of “Never!” whenever some major change is proposed is as inevitable as it is incomprehensible once the change in question has come about.

Slavery, the vote for women, integration: how much screaming and yelling and digging-in-of-heels…not to mention bloodshed and terrible suffering…went on before the change finally arrived? And how many today can understand what all the fuss was about? The same is true of technology, though generally to a lesser degree, and certainly without the same level of violence. Technological change is accepted a bit more readily, mainly because technology generally improves our individual lives. But even they are not without their vociferous detractors. The automobile (“Get a horse!”) and the airplane (“If God had intended for men to fly, he’d have given us wings!”) are just two examples.

One of the only certainties in life is that it will change, and there are three ways we all deal with it: welcome it, fight it tooth and nail, or simply go along with it. Like most things, if Change were a sliding scale between total acceptance and total rejection, most people would fall somewhere toward the middle, and while we each tend to maintain a certain place on the scale, almost no one is consistent in their reaction.

I find myself pretty far along the “resist” side of the scale. I don’t, as you may have noticed, like change much, because to change means letting go of the past, and for me that is something not to be desired.

Just in my lifetime, there have been a couple truly monumental examples of change. John F. Kennedy became our first Catholic president. (“Never! He’ll be controlled by the pope.”) Now we have a black president. And some day we will have a woman president. (“Never! Never!”)

I myself have ridden city busses in the south when African-Americans—they were “coloreds” or “Negroes” (or worse) back then—were forced to sit in the rear, and interstate busses in which little African American children had to stand in the aisles even though seats next to whites were available. The armed forces did not even integrate “people of color” fully until WWII.

Women in the military were little more than secretaries in uniform as little as 30 years ago. That they might assume more active rolls in the military was unheard of. And that women might serve aboard a warship or be in combat situations was utterly, totally unthinkable. And now nobody gives either of these things a second thought.

And still, rather than look back to see what happened in the past to these monumental it’ll-never-happen changes, people STILL scream and holler and go apoplectic over allowing gays to serve openly. They use—sometimes with almost the identical words—the same utterly specious, idiotic excuses to ban gays as they used against African Americans and women. What do these people use for logic? Good Lord, you idiots, open your eyes! And those of us who realize that change is inevitable cannot merely sit back meekly and wait for it. We have to be brave enough to confront the nay-sayers. In our refusal to do so, we are all, straight and gay, still in the closet. All we have to do to get out is to open the door.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back…and bring a friend.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Ya Know?

There are, ya know, all sorts of things that, ya know, drive me totally, ya know, crazy. It seems like, ya know, every time I, ya know, listen to sports figures or, ya know, just average people, ya know, talking on TV, it seems like, ya know, they can’t make it, ya know, through a single sentence without, ya know, sprinkling it with at least, ya know, forty or fifty “ya know”’s.

And worse still, if it is possible for there to be a worse, is the absolutely infuriating “ya know what I’m sayin’?” Yes, you obnoxious cretin, I know what you’re saying. And nine times out of ten, I don’t care.

Something there is that terrifies us about pauses in speech while we look for the next word we want to say. So we seem driven to plug the gaps with…something. Anything. The time-tested and ever-popular “…uh…” and “…um…” seem to have fallen out of favor in recent times. Perhaps the speaker, has some pathetic (and totally erroneous) hope that by rattling off an endless stream of “ya know”’s he—and for some strange reason it is invariably a “he”—is creating some sort of glue to hold the listener’s attention, and to implying a (nonexistent) bond between speaker and listener. But “ya know what I’m sayin’?”, in addition to being incredibly annoying, is also insulting in its implication that the speaker is not sure that you are bright enough to grasp the depth and subtlety of what he’s attempting to convey.

Gap fillers seem, like clothing fashions, to be trendy, and the only thing they all have in common seems to be their “fingernails on the blackboard” quality. They share this annoying tendency with their close relatives, the ubiquitous “catch words of the moment.” In the 40s and 50s, “sez” was quite popular (“So he sez, ‘I don’t like it,’ and I sez ‘too bad,’) “Like” is still quite popular (“and I’m, like, ‘oh, no you’re not!, and he’s, like, ‘oh yes I am”), but I am infinitely relieved that “goes” (“And then he/she goes…and I go…and he/she goes…”) seems to have been fading away. There are a number of lesser fillers, one that seems oddly out of place is “…and that” which some people use not as a gap filler but a sentence ender. (“So I shot him between the eyeballs and waited until the police came…and that.”)

Lord knows I have difficulty speaking in intelligible sentences. That, again, is why I became a writer, so that I could take the time necessary to put my thoughts into a coherent sentence. I don’t always succeed, but I have always found expressing myself through writing much more satisfactory and far less embarrassing than speaking them.

One of the worst things about gap fillers and catch words is that those using them are often totally unaware that they are doing so, and to point it out to them is rather awkward, like telling someone they have bad breath.

I really do try to avoid gap-fillers (even if I have serious problems with linear thought and wander aimlessly from point to point within the same sentence). Still, I’m sure even I may be guilty of, like, an occasional gap filler or catch word. ‘Ya know what I’m sayin’?

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back, and bring a freind.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Questions and Answers

The story goes that as Gertrude Stein lay dying, one of her friends, thinking that as Gertrude stood on the fine line between life and death she might have some profound insights into the mysteries of life, bent low and whispered “Gertrude, Gertrude, what is the answer?” To which Ms Stein replied: “What is the question?”

While it seems that to ask questions is in our racial genes—and, in fact, one mark of being human is to want to know more than we do—we seem incapable of accepting the fact that some questions have no answers…at least no answers the human brain, astonishing as it is, could comprehend.

But it is the search for answers which drives us forward as a species, and every answer almost always poses a new set of questions. It is our ability to ask questions which separates us from every other living species on the planet. Without questions, what purpose would there be to existence (which, you will notice, is in itself a question)? Answers inevitably lead to change and progress. In fact, answers are progress. Granted, progress frequently has its drawbacks such as global warming and other man-made potential catastrophes which ironically threaten our very existence.

Of all the gifts given mankind, the greatest is wonder…the drive to explore, to see what lies around the next bend in the road. And wonder results in questions, the asking of which is often more important than the answer. If we knew exactly why a rose is beautiful, or what lies beyond the universe, what purpose would there be to human life? Cows don’t ask questions. To have the answer to everything would deprive us of wonder, and make us no different, basically, than cows. Or sea slugs.

No matter how wise we become, it would never be possible too determine the exact number of stars in the sky, or the exact number of grains of sand in all the deserts, or the gallons of water in the oceans because the only constant is change. But even if we had a set answer, could we comprehend it? The current financial crisis is being met by throwing a trillion dollars at the problem. How much is a trillion? Can you close your eyes and picture it? I can’t. Science has estimated there are a trillion trillion stars in the universe. Try that one.

Of course unanswerable questions are not limited to numbers of grains of sand, or stars, or gallons of water in the ocean. There are an infinite number of things each of us does not know about ourselves: how we came to be who we are, why we react to things the way we do, why what pleases us pleases us, and why what angers us angers us. Science—created by man specifically to answer questions—has reached the point where it is moving ever faster than any human can keep up with. In finding the answers to more and more once-unanswerable questions, the answers themselves reach a complexity few humans can comprehend.

Life, as you may have noticed, is a long string of compromises. As individuals, we all must reach an accommodation between what we can know and what we can’t and, like the Serenity prayer says, hope for the wisdom to know the difference. That restriction, however, does not appear to apply to Man as an overall species. The firm assumption that there is no question that cannot be answered has served us well for millennia. It’s just that the questions are getting harder.

Now…where did I leave my keys?

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back…and bring a friend.